Wireless access for the masses!

– By Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller
Bradenton, FL – So far I’ve only been able to find three local wireless “hot spots.” Each one is on a different network, and all of them charge substantial daily fees to connect. The funny thing is, wireless access is dirt-cheap to provide, and businesses smart enough to give it to people like me for free would almost certainly profit from my increased patronage.

This is not an original thought. In fact, it was spurred by a story at The Register fetchingly titled, Public Wi-Fi has look and feel of a dead duck.

The other impetus for this essay was my discovery that the nearest Starbuck’s was not Wi-Fi-enabled. Locations in nearby Sarasota and St. Petersburg are, but frowzy little Bradenton doesn’t rate.

You could argue that Bradenton is such a technological backwater that there’s no point in putting wireless hot spots here. The local Economic Development Council is so backwards that they only let you look at their site with Explorer.

But Bradenton is probably typical of towns that haven’t tied their future to high technology, and have stuck with traditional industries instead. (Tropicana and Chris-Craft are big employers here.)

I suspect that at least half of all local businesses don’t have Web pages or Internet connections, and I doubt that even five percent of the population has wireless-enabled laptops or PDAs. Not only that, I think most of us who do have wireless gear are happy to wait until we’re home to check email and wander the WWW.

What about the tourist trade?

Perhaps the vast majority of Bradenton locals aren’t ready for wireless hotspots everywhere (especially at $10 per day or more for use of each one, separately), but some visitors might want this service, and Bradenton is certainly a tourism-intensive area.

So let’s assume a putative tourist pulls his or her yacht into the Twin Dolphins Marina, which offers Wi-Fi service (for a fee). Or stays at the local Holiday Inn Express many miles inland, along Interstate Route 75, which also offers Wi-Fi service for a fee.

Said tourist can’t pay at one location and use the other location’s network without paying again. What, then, is the point of having wireless when traveling? You might as well just plug in a physical CAT-5 cord from your boat or in your hotel room, and do all your Interneting from there.

Now, it seems, even recreational vehicle parks are getting into the Wi-Fi game — with, once again, a separate network provider and a separate daily or monthly bill.

How much does a commercial DSL line and an 802.11 access point really cost?

The thing is, commercial DSL isn’t expensive — between $75 and $200 per month in most of the U.S. — and setting up an open (or even passworded) wireless access point is a matter of hundreds or thousands, not hundreds of thousands. Sooner or later smart restaurant, cafe, marina, hotel, and even trailer and RV park operators are going to figure out that free wireless access is a nice little business-builder that doesn’t cost a lot to offer.

Once a few major players get that idea, others will be forced to follow. Motel 6 started offering (and advertising) free local phone calls back when most hotels and motels were starting to go from 75 cents per call toward a dollar, and suddenly it became hard for any lodging chain catering to working travelers, like truckers and salesmen, to charge anything at all for local calls, and higher-end hotels that kept charging for phone use found that a growing percentage of their guests brought and used cell phones, so their phone revenues dropped to nearly nothing, too, even if they raised their rates into dreamland.

Right now, when traveling, I’ll pay $10 per night extra for in-room high-speed Internet access. That seems to be the going rate in the U.S., although I’ve had hotels in Mexico and Jordan try to ream me for up to $6 per hour US for dialup connections — which didn’t mean they got my money, but that I got off my butt and found local Internet cafes that charged less than a dollar an hour, and were generally a lot more fun (and certainly more social) than sitting alone in a hotel room.

But the day will come — indeed, it’s already starting to come in some parts of the country — when high-speed Internet access, wired or unwired, will be included with your hotel room the way Motel 6 now includes local calls, and many hotels include your morning coffee.

Next — and this is also starting to happen — you’ll see other businesses offer free Wi-Fi, possibly only if you purchase something, the way some offer free parking only to customers.

This will certainly be nice for laptop-toters like me. It’ll also be nice for computer vendors selling Intel’s built-in wireless Centrino systems, and all the PCMCIA wireless card manufacturers.

But free wireless is going to kill all the companies that have based their businesses on pay-for wireless connections at marinas, trailer parks, hotels, cafes, theme parks, convenience stores, and other specialty locations. I pity the people who have invested in these companies, because I simply can’t see any way they will ever get their money out of them.

At least, when the money-for-access wireless vendors start going broke, there will be lots of wireless access points going for a song on eBay that will allow merchants who might not otherwise consider going wireless to put in free (with registration or purchase, at least) Wi-Fi systems.

Who knows? Maybe even some of my favorite Bradenton hangouts will get wireless access. There’s one cafe on the beach, in particular, that I wish had Wi-Fi, because if it did I’d be working from their patio right now instead of from my home, eight miles inland.